Q: Did Barack Obama’s inauguration really cost 4 times as much as George Bush’s 2005 inauguration?
A: Claims of a huge disparity are untrue. Actually, an apples-to-apples comparison shows that the two inaugurations likely cost about the same.
There seems to be a lot of sloppy reporting about the total cost of the Obama inauguration vs. the Bush inauguration that is being used for partisan attacks. I’ve heard $160 million for Obama vs. 40 million + for Bush. I’ve also heard Bush’s 2005 inauguration was really $157 million. What are the facts?
For much of the past week, several right-leaning news sites have compared an estimated $160 million price tag for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration to a $42 million tally for George W. Bush’s 2005 inauguration. For example, Newsmax reported that Obama’s inauguration "will be the most expensive ever" with a cost "nearly four times what George Bush’s inauguration cost four years ago." And Fox News’ Sean Hannity told viewers that "the cost of Obama’s inaugural will dwarf past celebrations and make those of President Bush’s look like budget bashes."
They’re wrong. They’ve misinterpreted mainstream news accounts from the Associated Press, ABC News and the New York Times, among others. The AP and ABC News both report that Obama’s inauguration could cost between $160 and $170 million, while Bush raised a net total of $42.3 million to cover the costs of his inauguration, according the New York Times and others, based on the report Bush’s committee filed with the Federal Election Commission a few months after the event. But those aren’t direct comparisons; the Obama estimates include the cost of security, while the figure for Bush’s inauguration does not.
Inauguration costs are divided up into two categories. In one category is all the fun stuff: the inaugural balls, luncheons and Springsteen appearances. That’s also the category for things like the 20 JumboTrons placed around the National Mall and the special payment to keep the Smithsonian Institution open for the day. The fun events don’t cost taxpayers a dime. Presidential inauguration committees raise money from private donors for all the fun stuff. A spokesperson for Obama’s inaugural committee told ABC News that the committee raised about $45 million to cover the costs of events in the fun category. (A full accounting will eventually be filed with the FEC, probably in April.) Adjusting for inflation, Obama’s estimated total is about $41.4 million in 2005 dollars — or slightly less than the $42.3 million Bush raised for his second inauguration.
But the cost of all the fun stuff is actually less than the cost of providing security for the various events. Taxpayers are on the hook for that bill, and while we won’t know for several weeks just how big that tally will be, there’s every reason to expect that it’ll be hefty. The Times reports that in 2005 the District of Columbia and the federal government spent a combined $115.5 million, mainly on security. ABC News reports higher numbers for this time, with the federal government estimating a $49 million cost and Virginia, Maryland and D.C. requesting a combined $75 million more to cover their inauguration-related expenses. If those estimates hold up, that would work out to around $114 million in inflation-adjusted figures.
It’s possible that the security costs could end up being higher. Roughly 400,000 people attended George Bush’s 2005 inaugural festivities, according to estimates at the time. CNN estimates that 1.5 million attended the 2009 version, and other estimates range from over 1 million to 1.8 million.
All the bills for Obama’s event won’t be in for several more weeks, but it appears likely that his inauguration will not cost significantly more than Bush’s second inauguration, and could conceivably cost less after adjusting for inflation.
Update Jan. 23: We updated this article with quotes from Newsmax and Fox New’s Hannity, to give specific examples of the kind of inaccurate reporting we are criticizing.
Apuzzo, Matt. "Obama Hosting Pricey Party in a Dicey Economy." 17 January 2009. Associated Press. Accessed 21 January 2009.
Bureau of Labor Statistice. "Inflation Calculator." Accessed 21 January 2009.
CNN.com. "Security Tight, Movement Slow on Inauguration Day." 20 January 2009. Accessed 21 January 2009.
Dwyer, Timothy. "Snow and Crowds Descend on Capital." 20 January 2005. Washington Post. Accessed 21 January 2009.
Mayerowitz, Scott, "What Recession? The $170 Million Inauguration." 19 January 2009. ABC News. Accessed 21 January 2009.
Seelye, Katherine Q. "Obama’s Inauguration Fund-Raising Tops $24 Million." 5 January 2009. New York Times. Accessed 21 January 2009.